Henry D. Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and former Pentagon official and consultant to the Office of Net Assessment, has written a thoughtful and sobering study on the potential for nuclear proliferation and competition in the Asia-Pacific region. Published in January 2016 by the U.S. Army War College Press, Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future, presents a bleak but not altogether hopeless view of current trends in the development of strategic, intermediate and battlefield nuclear weapons, the spread of ballistic missile technology, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons-grade material throughout the region.
This vision is not shared by most of the world’s policymakers and academic theorists who instead see the world becoming a safer place as the United States and Russia continue to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence becomes virtually “automatic,” and non-nuclear powers obtain “peaceful” nuclear facilities and materials. Sokolski argues that the more sanguine views of the nuclear future in the Asia-Pacific fail to “fully explore the regional insecurities that arise with threatened nuclear weapons breakouts or ramp-ups,” ignore the “significant overlaps between civilian and military nuclear activities or the risk that ‘peaceful’ nuclear facilities or materials might be diverted to make bombs,” and downplay the potential strategic instability that may result from U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament in the face of nuclear weapons build-ups by China, India, Pakistan, and possibly other regional states, and the proliferation of nuclear facilities and materials.
If current trends continue, Sokolski explains, “[t]he strategic military competitions of the next . . . decades will be unlike any the world has yet seen.” At the height of the Cold War, the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Soviet Union dwarfed those of the world’s other nuclear powers. Today, while the U.S. and Russia freeze or continue to reduce their nuclear arsenals, China, India, and Pakistan are increasing and modernizing their strategic nuclear forces; which means that “the next arms race will be run by a much larger number of contestants with highly destructive strategic capabilities far more closely matched and capable of being quickly enlarged than in any other previous period in history.”